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What Pokémon Go Tells Us About Our Media Future

By S. Craig Watkins

Pokemon Go

In just a few days Pokémon Go has become the talk of the technology and gaming industry. The number of user downloads has been so high that Nintendo, the company who created the original Pokémon, saw its market capitalization rise $9 billion, according to the New York Times. Pokémon Go was created by a relatively new company, Niantic Inc., that was created inside of Google before spinning out to become its own entity.

Over the last few days, several people have asked me about the Pokémon Go phenomenon, especially friends who are not likely to play the game but are curious about why so many others have joined the crowd. In my own research, I’m constantly exploring how our engagement with digital media transforms our world. It is important to realize that technology, by itself, is not that significant. It is only when humans, for example, begin to adopt and use technology that the social implications and consequences truly take shape. This is equally true with Pokémon Go. As the game has become a cultural sensation, a number of issues have emerged. Let me briefly address three of them—data and privacy, the social aspects of social media, and the massification of augmented reality—and what they likely suggest about the immediate future.

Data and Privacy

If there is one element of the digital world that continues to grow in importance it is the matter of data and privacy. We live in the era of big data. This is a reference to the fact that the applications and technologies that millions of people around the world use—Google, smartphones, mobile apps—are huge data generators. Virtually everything that we do on our smartphones—what we search for, who we call, the pictures that we take, the places that we visit—are being collected to build a data-rich profile of us. This is problematic for several reasons. It is why tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple have become so massive. While the general public sees these companies as tech, media, and entertainment entities, a strong case could be made that they are first and foremost big data gatherers. Google makes most of its money—and they make a lot—and derives most of its value from the insights they are able to generate from the data profiles they build based on the use of its many applications. Facebook’s maturation into a profitable company also hinges on its ability to “monetize” the massive amounts of data that it routinely collects.

The popular surge of Pokémon Go downloads has provoked some observers to dissect the agreement that people sign on to when they download the app. More specifically, concerns have been raised about how much of users’ personal data Niantic is collecting and what they will do with that data. For example, some reports claim that in addition to collecting information from smartphone cameras and location data, Niantic has been able to gain access to users’ full Google account which implies access to emails, calendars, photos, and shared documents. That is, the billions of pieces of content that user passwords are supposedly designed to protect.

One of the unintended consequences of the popular rise of a game like Pokémon Go is that it creates yet another opportunity to initiate a public dialogue about data and privacy issues. Understanding the privacy implications of our digital media behaviors is just as important as other digital literacy issues, such as learning to code or communicate effectively with smart technologies. It’s possible that the popularity of Pokémon Go will compel the public to think more carefully about the privacy implications of their technology adoption and also demand greater security protections from the tech companies and the data gathering business.

Games are Social and Physical

The Young and the DigitalOne of the longstanding critiques of social media and games is that they make us insular and less social. That is, that they make us more intimate with our screens and less intimate with the humans and the world around us. While there are certainly instances of people developing strong and even unhealthy attachments to their screens, this is largely the exception and not the rule. I write about this in my book, The Young and the Digital.  Simply put, social media makes us social creatures insofar as we are constantly interacting with those in our social network via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and texting, just to name a few platforms. There have been numerous reports that Pokémon Go has encouraged people to move around their cityscape in ways that are extraordinarily social. Users of the app have converged in parks, museums, and city blocks to play the game and connect to acquaintances and people they do not know. Users have organized very public meet-ups that gather people together in an explicitly social context. In moments like these, people strike up conversations and make connections that potentially expand their real world social capital.

Equally important is the ability of Pokémon Go to get people up and about. Sure, they are engaged with their smartphone, but the mobile app has turned people into adventurers, sightseers, and walkers. One of the more enduring critiques of social media and games is that they tend to make us insular and sedentary. We spend a lot of time sitting in front of a screen alone and that is not healthy. In the case of Pokémon Go, users are required to get up and get out. One of the more common stories about the app is how it encourages people to explore their local surroundings on foot. It is not uncommon to hear people say, “I’ve walked more than I ever have before using this app.” One can only imagine that the popularity of Pokémon Go will encourage the developers of this app and others that are sure to come to design experiences and tech features that highlight the physical exercise that people achieve as a result of using the app. In addition to tracking the number of steps, users might also track the number of calories burned, blood pressure, and other health-based metrics.

Augmented Reality Comes to the Masses

For several years, futurists and gaming advocates have been hailing the virtues of Augmented Reality, or A.R. What is A.R.? This is a reference to the merger of the physical world that we inhabit with the world that we interact with via our screens. Imagine that you are walking through a historical district and you are able to pull out your smartphone point it toward a building or a sign and that physical site comes alive. You may have access to a video about the site or data and information to enrich your knowledge and connection to the sight. In short, that physical space awakens via your smartphone. This is the kind of experience that Pokémon Go is providing for its surging number of users—turning local destinations into interactive experiences. A.R. has been around for several years but it has mainly been the province of early adopters and tech geeks. Pokémon Go is bringing A.R. technology to everybody else. 

This is significant as several media and tech companies—Google, Facebook, Disney/ESPN, New York Times—are exploring new social experiences and economic opportunities via virtual reality or V.R. technologies. The latest buzz in the tech and media industries is V.R. More specifically, the goal is to figure out ways to turn our experiences with screens into a richer and more sensory-oriented experience. Pokémon Go is barely the tip of the iceberg as the opportunities for A.R. and V.R. are just beginning to emerge. 

Our future relationship to media will continue to take shape, in part, via our smartphones and applications that connect us to our physical world. Pokémon Go brings the possibilities of A.R. to the masses in a way that no other tech has to date. For years, futurists, novelists, and filmmakers have imagined a world in which our physical world and the world we interact with via the screens in our hands would seamlessly merge to spark whole new social experiences. In Pokémon Go, we are beginning to see that world come closer and closer to reality. 


About the Author 

S. Craig WatkinsS. Craig Watkins writes about youth, media, technology, and society. He is Professor of Radio-TV-Film at the University of Texas at Austin and is the author of Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement and The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Media Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future. Follow him on Twitter at @scraigwatkins and visit his website.